Avi Benlolo will screen a film at Beth Israel on Feb. 13. (PR photo)
There is a fundamental disconnect between what is happening in the Middle East and what observers in Europe and North America perceive, according to Avi Benlolo, founder and chairman of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative. He aims to close that gap, and will be in Vancouver next month to bring his message – and a new documentary film – to West Coast audiences.
“Peace is unfolding in the Middle East,” Benlolo told the Independent. “The Abraham Accords have completely revolutionized Israel’s relationship with some of the neighbouring countries like the [United Arab Emirates], Bahrain, Morocco and so on. This new development hasn’t yet registered here in the West.”
On university campuses and in the social movements of Europe and North America, he said, the narrative remains mired in the decades-old conflict and tired rhetoric of “apartheid,” “colonization” and BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the state of Israel.
“The truth of the matter is that that rhetoric isn’t rhetoric in the Middle East,” Benlolo said. “In the Middle East, BDS is nonexistent. You now have trade in the billions of dollars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, so clearly BDS has lost.”
The film that Benlolo produced and directed, The Future of Israel and its Defenders, approaches the issues through the lenses of experts, military strategists, entrepreneurial leaders, journalists and current and former political leaders.
“The message I’m trying to transmit,” he said, “is one really of hope for change.… If we are reinforcing that message that this is happening, that will help build on the peace process.”
A growing global realization of Mideast peace will also help reduce antisemitism and empower Jews, especially young people, everywhere, Benlolo hopes.
The film will be screened, and Benlolo will participate in a question-and-answer session, at Congregation Beth Israel Feb. 13, 7 p.m., in a celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday.
Benlolo founded the Abraham Global Peace Initiative after many years of working in the Jewish communal sector, including as chief executive officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. AGPI became a registered charity in late 2021.
While there are many Jewish and Zionist organizations in Canada, Benlolo said his is unique.
“There is no voice for Canadian Jews internationally,” he said. “We are taking the Canadian voice global and working with the United Nations, working with the [European Union], working with multiple leaders around the world. Antisemitism and defamation of Israel is a transnational phenomenon. The swastika that you see painted on a school wall is not just localized, it’s being motivated globally.
“We are also saying, we as Canadians can stand up for ourselves,” Benlolo continued. “Canada itself is an incredible brand globally…. What AGPI is doing is optimizing the Canadian brand and we’re doing it very successfully. Every two minutes – I’m not exaggerating – there is a subscriber onto our website from somewhere on the planet, Italy, Brazil. Every two minutes. That’s because people love the Canadian brand, they love everything that we are saying, so we can be, as Canadians, an international voice with quite tremendous strength.”
While Benlolo is hoping that the Abraham Accords mute some of the condemnation Israel experiences on the world stage, defending Israel’s rights internationally may be entering a new phase, he said. The old tropes are being replaced with the phrase “Israel’s most right-wing government ever,” including in mainstream media sources.
“It’s a challenge, I’m not going to kid you,” said Benlolo. “The thing is, the media is never a fan of Israel, particularly here in Canada, outside of the National Post and maybe the Jewish [community] media. They are using any opportunity to grab hold and to make Israel look bad. They love it.”
The characterization of Israel’s new government clouds the reality, he argued. Israelis who voted for right-wing parties did so mainly on security grounds, he said, because they are deeply concerned about terrorism.
“That has driven them to move to the right,” he said, adding that Israeli society in general “is fairly secular, is not right-wing and is very pro-human rights.” He noted that the new Knesset features the country’s first openly gay speaker.
“Just because you’ve got this government right now that’s made up of a coalition doesn’t mean that it represents Israeli society and it doesn’t mean that it’s everybody in Israel that believes in this. That needs to be articulated as well,” said Benlolo. “Finally, we’re going to put pressure to bear as a Jewish community and friends of Israel, we’re going to continue to pressure Israel to make sure that it stays the course and stays true to tikkun olam.”
More details, and tickets for the event, which is presented by Beth Israel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, are available at bethisrael.ca.
Holocaust survivors participate in the candlelighting ceremony at the community’s Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. (photo by Al Szajman)
Commemorating the Holocaust and the sad succession of genocides that have been perpetrated since is a sacred responsibility – but it is not enough, says Liliane Pari Umuhoza. That memory must be the motivation that drives people to make a better world, she said.
Umuhoza was 2 years old when her father and a million others were murdered during the Genocide Against the Tutsis of Rwanda, in 1994. After experiencing trauma in her adolescence due to that familial and communal history, Umuhoza has devoted her life to commemorating and educating about the genocide and encouraging people to dedicate themselves to healing their societies.
“When we remember, we help ensure that the memories and legacies of the victims and survivors continue to resonate for future generations,” she said at Vancouver’s community Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. “When we remember, we learn about the history and create awareness. But that’s not enough. What matters the most is how we use that history to create a better world.”
The annual event took place at Beth Israel synagogue on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which is the moment when anti-Jewish regulations and systemic discrimination turned into overt violence and murder. It is seen by many historians as the effective beginning of the Holocaust.
The event was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel and with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign.
Umuhoza arrived in Vancouver several months ago to attend the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and global affairs. She is founder of the Women Genocide Survivors Retreat and is project officer for Foundation Rwanda, which provides funding for education to those who were born from rape during the genocide.
She began by outlining her own family’s history.
“I was 2 years old in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda,” she said. “During this tragedy, my father was killed. Some of my uncles, aunties, cousins and many other members of my extended family are among the million Tutsi who were killed by the Hutu extremists in 100 days.
“One million people were killed in 100 days,” she stressed. “I was lucky to survive with my mother, who managed to escape to a neighbouring country, Congo, holding me, a 2-year-old baby, where we lived as refugees until it was safe enough for us to go back to Rwanda.”
She considers herself fortunate in comparison with many of her peers.
“I now have a stepfather and stepsiblings and I cannot tell you how blessed I feel because most of my friends from home grew up without a father or a mother figure in their lives,” she said.
Umuhoza was too young to understand what was happening at the time, she said. “But I grew up facing the consequences of that tragedy in every corner of my life. As many of you may know, psychologically, young children between the age of 0 and 5 are the most vulnerable to the effects of trauma since their brains are in the early development stage. For most people who have been exposed to genocide or war as children, the trauma can become severe at the adolescent stage and adulthood, if it is not properly treated.”
At the age of 12, Umuhoza began to exhibit symptoms of trauma, including depression, post-traumatic stress, nightmares, frustration, anger and confusion. She used the strength of others as an example to recover, including a friend who had to take on the parent role from childhood after she and her younger siblings were orphaned. Umuhoza is now deeply immersed in often deeply difficult aspects of education, such as translating the narratives of other survivors through Foundation Rwanda.
“My role with this organization was to listen to the stories of these women in their Rwandan mother language and translate the stories in English so we could use those stories to create awareness and educate the world about the genocide and its ongoing consequences,” she said. “I found myself in a series of stories I’d never heard before … stories of mass murder, stories of pain, stories of rape.”
One of the lessons she learned from the genocide is to never tolerate injustice, no matter how big or small, Umuhoza said.
“Speak up and raise your voice when you see or hear people denying that the Holocaust happened,” she said. “Speak up when you hear people saying that the genocide did not happen. Speak up when you see minorities being unfairly treated. Speak up when you see women in Tehran being oppressed. Let’s dare to step out of our common comfort zone and cultivate empathy to people around us.”
She concluded: “Individually, we can change our communities. But together we can change the world.”
Earlier in the evening, Prof. Chris Friedrichs contextualized the history of the Holocaust, emphasizing the importance of synagogues as a place of refuge for Jewish communities. The Kristallnacht commemoration has been taking place in the sanctuary of Beth Israel for more than 40 years, he said.
There were more than 1,000 synagogues in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht, he noted, some many centuries old, while others were newer, having been dedicated in the presence of senior German officials, clergy and others, a testament to the apparent solidity of the Jewish community’s place in the country.
“But then, beginning in 1933, everything started to change,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at UBC. “Once the Nazis came to power, Germans were taught to shun their Jewish neighbours. Jews were banned from public places. They could no longer go to the theatre or walk in the park or send their children to public schools. But one place was still open to them – their own synagogues, where they could gather to worship or study or simply spend time with their fellow Jews. And so it was until Nov. 9, 1938, when, in one carefully orchestrated nationwide night of terror, hundreds of synagogues all over Germany were set aflame, thousands of Jews were arrested, over 100 were killed. The next morning, Jews found their synagogues turned into empty shells and the windows of their shops shattered into broken shards of glass and the contents plundered. No Jew in Germany ever forgot that night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.”
Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, spoke via video link to the audience.
Of the Holocaust, he said, “It was a continuation and manifestation of history’s oldest, longest, most enduring and most toxic of hatreds, antisemitism, a hatred that mutates and metastasizes over time, which is grounded in one generic, historical, foundational, conspiratorial trope of the Jews – the Jewish people, the Jewish state – as the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is evil, which led, therefore, to the demonization and dehumanization of the Jew as prologue and justification for Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.”
A parallel between the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsis, he said, is that they were preventable.
“Nobody could say we did not know,” said Cotler. “We knew, but we did not act.”
Corinne Zimmerman, president of the VHEC, opened the event. Nina Kreiger, executive director, introduced the speakers and acknowledged dignitaries in attendance.
Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, a child of Holocaust survivors, thanked Umuhoza and reflected on her words and those of other speakers. He understands the idea of trauma being passed down through generations, he said. Reflecting on Friedrichs’ discussion of the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life, Infeld said his spiritual leadership of the congregation during the construction of the new synagogue building was a form of response to the history of his family and the Jewish people.
Elected officials also spoke at the ceremony. Taleeb Noormohamad, member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, spoke of his first trip to Berlin, where he walked around the streets of the old Jewish district.
“As somebody who had never really seen firsthand until that trip the horrors of what had happened to the Jewish community and to so many others,” said Noormohamad, “in that moment you come to realize the absolute inexplicable horror that was cast upon people and what it does to people, to communities, to families and to the histories of people.”
He committed to standing with the Jewish community against discrimination and noted the diversity of the audience, which included himself, a Muslim Canadian; Michael Lee, a Chinese-Canadian member of the legislature; and Ken Sim, a Chinese-Canadian mayor.
Parm Bains, member of Parliament for Steveston-Richmond East, was also present, as was Marc Eichhorn, consul general of Germany in Vancouver.
“Antisemitism is not a problem, a fight, that is for the Jewish community alone,” Noormohamad said. “When you look in this room today, we are all in this together. This is our community. You are our family and the remembrance of what happened is our responsibility as much as it is yours.”
The Kristallnacht commemoration was the first official community event for Sim, who was sworn in as mayor of Vancouver three days before. He, too, spoke of visiting Germany, along with his wife and their four sons, where they witnessed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and pondered the Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones” that have been installed to mark the places where victims of Nazi extermination or persecution lived. The family, he said, has also visited Auschwitz, in Poland, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.
During the recent election campaign, Sim promised that, as mayor, he would promote the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, which the previous council failed to do. He repeated his commitment at the ceremony, and council passed the motion on Nov. 16. (Click here and here for stories.)
Sim was joined at the event by Vancouver Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who Sim credited as a stalwart ally of the Jewish community. Together, they read the official proclamation from the City of Vancouver.
“Out of the shards of destruction, in this case the glass on the night of Kristallnacht, often are born the glimmers of hope,” said Kirby-Yung, “and I think that is what keeps all of us going. It is the resilience and faith and the hope of the Jewish community that I think embodies the spirit of what we aspire to deliver here in the city of Vancouver.”
Tikva Housing Society is thrilled to share that the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation has provided a grant of $255,000 to support Tikva’s mission to offer affordable housing solutions to the Jewish community.
“A gift of this magnitude provides help and hope at a time when economic uncertainty is definitely impacting housing insecurity,” said Anat Gogo, executive director of Tikva Housing Society. “The Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation’s tremendous generosity means that we will have the financial resources to build capacity on an operational level. Tikva is on an unprecedented growth trajectory and this gift is critical to support our growing housing portfolio, allowing us to say ‘yes’ to a number of new opportunities on the horizon.”
The need for affordable housing continues to be first and foremost on the minds of many in the Jewish community. This gift will be put to work, empowering individuals and families by providing affordable housing – allowing them to build long-term change in their lives and beyond.
Tikva Housing Society is grateful to the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation for its partnership in addressing the issue of housing insecurity. Tikva appreciates the foundation’s focus on strengthening the capacity of the community’s organizations and its commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world.
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Vancouver Talmud Torah, Congregation Beth Israel and Jewish Family Services are elated to share with the community that a gift of $100,000 has been received from the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation to support the Vancouver Jewish Community Garden. This gift enables the building of the garden to begin in earnest and it is anticipated that construction will begin this fall. Thanks to the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s Transformation Grant and the Diamond Foundation, the garden will be located and built above the shared BI and VTT parkade.
The garden aspires to positively impact many members of the local Jewish community and to be a hub for celebrating and honouring nature, imparting Jewish teachings and values, promoting collaboration, and enhancing the community’s well-being. Studies show that spending time outdoors in nature has been directly linked with lessened anxiety and depression for adults and children alike and helps people better manage stress.
“It is exciting and encouraging to see several important communal institutions come together collaboratively to advance such a positive new opportunity. The Vancouver Jewish Community Garden will be an opportunity to teach community members of all ages about agriculture and the importance of a healthy earth, to enable volunteers to contribute to our community and to help feed those in need. The Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation is pleased to help advance the project towards completion,” noted Bernard Pinsky, Roadburg board chair.
* * *
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver is delighted to welcome two new members of its team: Gayle Morris and Alisa Farina.
Morris is the new director of the Federation annual campaign, the community’s central fundraising initiative. Building relationships is central to this role, and Morris brings an incredible depth of experience in that area, and so much more. She is an accomplished and multifaceted sales, marketing and business development leader who has extensive experience in both innovative startups and not-for-profit organizations. She is also an active member of the community with extensive volunteer involvement.
Farina has been hired as the child, youth and young adult mental health worker, and Federation is grateful to the Mel and Gerri Davis Charitable Trust for the support to enable the creation of the new position.
Farina holds a bachelor’s in child and youth care and comes to the job from a 25-year career with the Burnaby School District, the last 10 of which she focused on working with high-risk, vulnerable youth and their families. Farina is currently completing her master’s degree in clinical counseling. She grew up in the Lower Mainland and was involved with BBYO and Camp Miriam.
Gaynor Levin is retiring from Congregation Beth Israel after 25 years. (photo from Gaynor Levin)
After 25 years of contributing to the communal fabric of Congregation Beth Israel, Gaynor Levin is retiring. Anyone who has had the pleasure to interact with Levin – who has worked in many different capacities at the shul – knows that she prides herself on making sure that every detail under her sphere of influence is taken care of perfectly, with a smile every time.
Levin arrived in Canada from South Africa in 1991, with Vancouver as the goal but settling in Calgary initially. She had been a teacher at a Jewish day school in Cape Town for six years and took a job at the Calgary Jewish Community Centre.
“We came from summer in Cape Town and arrived in mid-December. It was -20 in Calgary,” she said with a laugh and a little shiver.
After 11 months, Levin and her husband, Ivor, made the move to Vancouver, where they have been ever since. Her career in the Jewish community continued, as the mother of two began work at Beth Israel as a Hebrew school teacher in 1997.
After a couple of years, looking for a new challenge, she took on the half-time position of program coordinator. “It was always a team effort,” she told the Jewish Independent. “I organized big family events and adult education programs.”
As the synagogue calendar grew, new positions were added to early childhood programming and Levin worked collaboratively with volunteers and shul employees to expand the services Beth Israel provided.
By 2014, the synagogue building had been completely redeveloped.
“The shul needed a rental manager and a manager of member relations,” Levin said. “I describe this job as customer service…. I am responsible for all of the happy events.”
With the exception of funerals, she became responsible for scheduling and helping organize all lifecycle and other gatherings. She explained that the member relations part of her job dovetailed nicely with the events part because it’s often around simchahs that families think of joining a synagogue. She also took on the responsibility for the rabbi’s calendar and for booking the Schara Tzedeck mikvah when necessary for conversions.
Working at the synagogue, Levin has seen many changes over the years. For example, recently, there have been a number of conversions for same-sex couples who have adopted, or who have had a baby by surrogate, and want to convert their new infant child to Judaism.
Outside of the religious domain, Levin’s job entailed renting out the synagogue’s various spaces to different groups. Jewish organizations such as King David High School and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver have used the BI ballroom over the years for large events, as have many other organizations. For example, this past May, B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation held their Balding for Dollars fundraiser at the synagogue. Ballroom dancing, rhythmic gymnastics, Girl Guides meetings and Weight Watchers gatherings were all regularly scheduled rentals under Levin’s tenure. There were also the occasional brushes with celebrity when TV shows were filmed on the premises.
“Whenever new people looking to host an event would walk into the shul, they would always be amazed. When they see it from the outside, nobody thinks it will look like this inside,” Levin explained. “It’s the best kept secret in the city. Central location, parking, a choice of many beautiful rooms.…”
While still clearly engaged with her job and the synagogue, Levin said 25 years is a good chunk of time in one place and she’s happy to leave now, feeling great about what she’s accomplished. She said she looks forward to attending events and services without the responsibility she’s had for years. “I love BI – it’s a second home to me and always will be,” she said, smiling.
Levin said her work with the membership in particular was personally rewarding and she enjoyed being “the face people knew when they joined the shul or needed help with an event.” She laughed when she said she never wants to give up buying the flowers for Yontif or gifts for guests of the shul because that was a favourite part of her job.
“I loved the people I worked with. It felt like a family – from the custodial staff to the president of the board,” she said.
Anyone looking to book the BI for an event can still catch Levin until the end of June. After that, she’ll be continuing her volunteer work in many Jewish organizations around the city – and watch out for her if on the Grouse Grind, as she’s climbing it at least three times a week.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
The new Beth Israel building welcomes people from 28th Avenue, while the original building (below) had its entrance on Oak Street. (photos from Beth Israel)
Congregation Beth Israel celebrates its 90th anniversary with a gala on June 12. It will feature “a walk down memory lane through each of the past nine decades,” as well as music, cocktails, dinner and other activities.
While the congregation’s history began in the 1920s, it wasn’t formally established until 1932. In a feature article in The Scribe (2008), community historian Cyril Leonoff, z”l, quotes an Oct. 9, 1931, editorial in the Jewish Western Bulletin, the predecessor of the Jewish Independent. A meeting had been held at the Jewish Community Centre, which was at Oak Street and 11th Avenue in those years, to discuss the possibility of a new congregation. The editorial commented:
“There can be no doubt in the minds of anyone that there is a distinct need for a Conservative or semi-Reform congregation in Vancouver. There are hundreds of Jews and Jewesses and their children who are so far removed by environment and training from the strictly Orthodox service that they have no inclination or desire to attend the synagogue now in existence here. The absence of [such a] synagogue carrying the services at least partly in English, has created a void in the religious life of many of our Jewish people…. The consensus of opinion in the community is … that a new congregation will be welcomed.”
The Jewish Community Centre was considered the best location initially, as the synagogue’s founding was during the Great Depression. Leonoff again cites that Oct. 9, 1931, editorial: “That the Community Centre, situated, as it is, convenient to all residential districts, would be the ideal place in which to set up the new congregation until such time as there are sufficient funds available for the erection of a separate building.”
It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that the land along Oak Street between 27th and 28th avenues – where the synagogue still stands – was bought. As Beth Israel’s website notes, “by the late 1940s, both a rabbi (David Kogan) and a building site – at 27th and Oak – became available and, in 1949, Beth Israel’s synagogue was dedicated.”
The congregation grew over the years and, for three of those first several decades, the synagogue was led by Rabbi Wilfred and Rebbetzin Phyllis Solomon, Cantor Murray Nixon, z”l, and Ba’al Tefillah, Torah reader and teacher David Rubin z”l.
Programs increased, as did the participation of women, beyond a bat mitzvah ceremony. According to the BI website, “In the late 1980s, it became clear that women, now well-educated in Jewish ritual and study, were ready to move up to the bimah and take their place as full participants in synagogue ritual. By 1989, women were called to the Torah for their own aliyot, were counted in the minyan and acted as sh’lichat tzibbur (prayer leader). Beth Israel was the first major Canadian Conservative congregation to become fully egalitarian.”
The synagogue’s current senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, and his wife Lissa Weinberger came to Beth Israel in 2006 via Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Marlboro, N.J. He told the Independent at the time: “We are very excited about moving to Vancouver, taking on an exciting challenge and being part of this community. I didn’t really know much about Beth Israel when we visited Vancouver, but after doing some research, I realized what a wonderful synagogue with a rich history it was.”
“It has been a pleasure working with Beth Israel as its rabbi for almost 17 years,” Infeld told the JI last week. “I remember the first day I walked into the synagogue. The congregants were wonderful. They were kind and welcoming. But the building was dated and literally falling apart. Everyone knew that we needed a new space for our spiritual home. After a few years, we were able to build an incredible and beautiful new synagogue that will last us for generations. We built a synagogue building for a new millennium…. Beth Israel has always been at the heart of the Vancouver’s Jewish community. I am proud to be part of that. I am sure that the spirit of Beth Israel will be strong for at least another 90 years. I look forward to helping to nurture it for many years to come.”
Construction on the current building began in 2012 and it was dedicated in September two years later. Along with Infeld, Beth Israel is currently led by Rabbi Adam Stein, Ba’alat Tefillah Debby Fenson and youth director Rabbi David Bluman.
“According to Mishna Pirkei Avot,” said Infeld, “a person is strong at the age of 80 and bent over at the age of 90. Beth Israel certainly has shown that 90 is the new 80. We are stronger than we have ever been. We are a synagogue built on the shoulders of giants. Many great women and men have dedicated their time, sweat and tears into building Beth Israel to be the synagogue that we are today. We greatly appreciate that. We could not be where we are today if it were not for them. And we greatly appreciate all of the people who continue to support us so that we can continue to grow and serve the Vancouver Jewish community. Ninety years is a big milestone in the life of synagogue. We really look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary in 10 years.”
The 90th anniversary gala chair is Dale Porte and committee members are Howard Blank, Alexis Doctor, Jean Gerber, Myrna Koffman, Debby Koffman, Alan Kwinter, Debbie Setton, Leatt Vinegar and David Woogman. To purchase tickets to the June 12 celebration, call the synagogue office at 604-731-4161 or visit bethisrael.ca.
“I am particularly interested in the way that Torah can help us look inward. Each of the topics is about religious character formation, various ways in which we create a more godly character and personality,” said Rabbi Eliezer Diamond in a Zoom conversation with the Jewish Independent ahead of his visit to Vancouver next month.
Congregation Beth Israel will be hosting Diamond as its scholar-in-residence for three in-person talks under the collective title Making a Life of Meaning. A professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in New York, Diamond will speak on Addiction and Judaism (April 28, 7:30 p.m.), the Power of Gratitude (April 29, 6 p.m., with a dinner to follow) and Seeking and Granting Forgiveness (April 30, 9:30 a.m.).
In regard to addiction, the rabbi compares the 12-step process of Alcoholics Anonymous with the laws of repentance by Maimonides and notes the parallel paths taken towards sobriety and repentance: acknowledgement, regret and acceptance.
“Not drinking and being sober are not the same thing. To recover from alcoholism, one has to change one’s way of living and thinking,” said Diamond, who discusses addiction from both a personal and professional perspective.
“I am a recovering alcoholic and I know about addiction from the inside,” he said. “Even though I am not a therapist or addiction counselor, what I can do is help people to be honest with themselves and say ‘I have a problem,’ which is an acknowledgement of the sin and a step towards repentance. It is important to help people see where they are at so that they can begin to make changes.”
It is also helpful, he added, for his rabbinical students to know that their teacher is a recovering alcoholic because there is frequently a shame involved in addiction and a sense that one is a diminished person as a result.
“I am there to say to them, those may be the cards one has been dealt. You can still be a productive human being and, if you take the steps you need to take to deal with addiction, there is no reason for shame. On the contrary, there is a reason for pride. You have been faced with a challenge and you have addressed it,” he said.
Diamond pointed out that, in a broad sense, there has been an acknowledgement in the past couple of decades within the Jewish community that Jews, like everyone else, have problems with addiction.
“We are not immune to addiction, as people think or would like to think,” he said. “In my own lifetime, the community has become more open. The founding of Jewish Addiction Community Services [JACS] is an example of that.”
In addition to Congregation Beth Israel, Diamond’s talks in Vancouver are being sponsored by JACS Vancouver, Jewish Family Services Vancouver and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Diamond’s discussion on gratitude is tied to the teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, an early 20th-century leader in the mussar (Jewish ethics or values) movement, who saw giving as being at the heart of the religious personality. In Dessler’s teachings, God, by providing life, is the ultimate giver. Therefore, to follow in God’s path, we must be givers ourselves. There are times, however, when we must also be receivers, and the best way to receive is through gratitude, Diamond explained.
Expanding on the theme of gratitude, Diamond added, “Ultimately, whether or not we experience ourselves as wealthy or poor is intimately connected to finding happiness and satisfaction with what we have. If we focus on what we have and the happiness that it can bring us, then we can feel wealthy. This is a choice that all of us, especially in a first-world situation, have.”
On forgiveness, the rabbi cited Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, who spoke of the human desire to seek forgiveness yet the difficulty humans have in granting it.
“Forgiving is a hard thing to do,” said Diamond. “What does it actually mean to forgive someone? Because, unless we lobotomize ourselves, we are not going to forget what happened. The essence of what I will be talking about is the relationship between forgiveness and recognizing the essential humanity of every human being, including those who have wronged us.”
What often stands in the way of forgiveness, he said, is the inability to view another person as anything other than evil, and not as a flawed individual who has stumbled, as we all stumble. The path towards forgiveness, according to Diamond, is to make that distinction.
Amid social and political divisiveness, which causes rifts in families and communities, Diamond further emphasized the importance of being able to listen to and appreciate the inherent humanity and sincerity in belief of those with whom we may strongly disagree.
“Rabbi Diamond is one of most well-respected scholars in the Conservative movement today,” said Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. “He is exceedingly bright, knowledgeable and eloquent. He is also passionate about the human value of gratitude and the importance of recovery. Considering the fact that drug and alcohol addictions and overdoses have been less spoken about during the pandemic, we knew that Rabbi Diamond should be our first in-person scholar-in-residence since the beginning of COVID-19. We are so happy that other community agencies are joining us. We look forward to welcoming Rabbi Diamond to Vancouver and learning from this incredible rabbi.”
Dr. Henry Abramson’s lecture series Jewish History, But Skipping the Boring Parts continues on March 9. (photo from Henry Abramson)
What do country music superstar Shania Twain and Orthodox academic Dr. Henry Abramson have in common? They both spent plenty of time in Timmins, Ont., before moving on to adventures in New Zealand and the United States.
While not as widely known as Twain, Abramson – the dean of arts and sciences at Tuoro’s Lander College in Flatbush, N.Y. – is popular in different circles. For example, during this interview, he mentioned an in-depth article about him in Der Veker, a Yiddish-language journal. He is known as a knowledgeable and entertaining lecturer – facts that the local community can check out for themselves in his five-part series Jewish History, But Skipping the Boring Parts, which began on Feb. 9. Sponsored by the estate of Sara Elias and hosted by Congregation Beth Israel, the series is open to the entire community.
The first lecture zipped through Jewish history touching on, as promised, the non-boring bits of history that are supported by archeological evidence. Many of the earliest artifacts are negative views or accounts of what we now call the Jewish people and Abramson was quick to point out, with humour, that these ancient people wrote nasty things about Jews but we’re the ones still around thousands of years later.
By the end of a well-polished 45-minute presentation, which included lots of images to break up the narrative, and a 15-minute Q & A, the 100-plus attendees were up to speed on the Maccabean revolt. One highlight was numerous examples of medieval depictions of a famous battle in which Judah Maccabee’s brother, Eleazar, kills an elephant. This story was popular with Christian medieval artists but their knowledge of elephants was clearly lacking.
Born in Iroquois Falls, Ont., Henry Abramson was the only Jewish boy in town. His grandparents had fled Lithuania in 1904 and found themselves in this town with a population of about 1,000. Abramson’s grandfather, and then his father, ran the town’s dry goods store. His parents’ commitment to ensure that he had a Jewish home life, education and sense of community are how he found himself in Timmins every Sunday as a child. His parents drove 100 kilometres each way, every week, to take him to learn with other Jewish children from the area. Abramson’s comment about Jews in tiny rural places was, “Break open a roll, out pops a Jew.”
Three years before his bar mitzvah, his parents went one major step further with his Jewish education. They found an apartment in Toronto and enrolled him, for a few years, in Eitz Chaim, a religious day school. His mother stayed with him during the week and his father took the train down on the weekend. Abramson said his father’s greatest talent in preserving the Jewish identity of his family was his ability to listen to the women in his family.
“My whiplash-like experience – going from being the only Jewish kid in town to the only northerner kid who knew what 40-below felt like – tempered my understanding of how Jews fit in the world as a whole,” he said.
After high school, Abramson enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Disillusioned with his studies, he flew to New Zealand to become a ski instructor. There, he fell in love with another ski instructor. Having grown up skiing, Abramson was living the dream and had planned to continue traveling the world, but he was involved in a ski accident that severed his femoral artery. During the six-month recovery that followed, he rethought his future and focus. He and his then-soon-to-be wife Ilana returned to Toronto, where Abramson earned a master’s in history.
Although the pair was involved in a Conservative shul during the early years of their marriage, they became attracted by the BAYT (Beth Avraham Yoseph Shul) in Toronto and began moving towards Orthodox observance. To complete his doctorate, Abramson went to Jerusalem to work at Hebrew University. After earning his PhD, he spent a year learning at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah, cementing his life as an Orthodox Jew. He went on to complete post-doctoral work at universities including Harvard and Oxford, and has written seven books.
To join the lecture series and find out how well Abramson delivers only the most exciting parts of Jewish history, visit bethisrael.ca. The remaining lectures take place on Zoom March 9, April 6, May 11 and June 1, 7 p.m. Visit bethisrael.ca.
Michelle Dodek is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
(image from flickr / Province of British Columbia)
Last November, the American advocacy organization Respect Ability announced some good news. New research it had conducted in 2021 suggested that disability awareness and inclusion was improving in Jewish communities across North America and Israel. According to its most recent survey, more synagogues, Jewish community centres, schools and private institutions are designing programs that consider the needs of people with disabilities. And more individuals are able to find Jewish organizations that support individuals with invisible disabilities like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.
Respect Ability’s goal for the survey was to determine the health of disability rights in diverse Jewish communities, particularly in countries where there were laws against employment and housing discrimination. Its last survey had been in 2018, and researchers wanted to know whether accessibility and acceptance had improved in the past three years.
There were just over 2,000 respondents in total, primarily from Canada, the United States and Israel. The overall message was that inclusion and accommodation was expanding. Accessibility for wheelchairs and improved opportunities for individuals with sight or hearing challenges were on the rise, as were outreach efforts for individuals with disabilities in general.
What is more, the number of faith organizations hiring rabbis and staff who had disabilities and, therefore, understood firsthand the challenges of a physical or cognitive disability, had increased by more than 73%. More than half (57%) of the survey-takers also said that the organizations had made public commitments to support diversity.
But the survey also identified a key obstacle: many community leaders wanted to help expand opportunities for inclusion, but “didn’t know how.” Roughly one-fifth of all respondents said that expanding opportunities in their faith communities was limited by leaders’ lack of knowledge or experience in making settings more accessible. This meant, in some cases, that members with invisible disabilities like autism or ADHD didn’t have access to resources or were turned away from programs and activities.
Most of the responses to the survey came from Respect Ability’s home base: U.S. states like California and New York, where laws and advocacy initiatives are different from those in Canada. Only about 7% of the responses came from Canada, where disability rights are protected by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The survey also did not reveal how much, or if any, of the Canadian data came from the Vancouver area. So, are the survey’s findings reflective of diversity inclusion here?
The last three years have been challenging for many, but particularly for organizations that rely on in-person community participation. The 2020 shutdown of schools, synagogues and community centres due to COVID forced many organizations in the Vancouver area to suspend programs that offered disability-inclusive services. Still, the Jewish Independent found that a number of organizations were able to develop creative ways to maintain their inclusive classes and programs.
Trying to inspire inclusion
In 2018, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver launched its Inspiring Inclusion grant program to assist community organizations in designing or improving inclusive programs. The grant competition was created as part of its 2020 Strategic Priorities, and it offered up to $2,500 to organizations that developed a new program or idea that would expand disability inclusion.
Four one-year grants, which were awarded in 2020, went to Vancouver and Richmond applicants. Each offered a unique way for engagement, ranging from new educational strategies that catered to individual learning approaches to special equipment that helped expand creative participation in the classroom.
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Family Yoga Fundamentals program was designed to appeal to a variety of abilities and offered options for in-person family participation. It later gave rise to a virtual format that attendees could link up with from home. According to the JCC’s adult programs coordinator, Lisa Cohen Quay, Family Yoga Fundamentals integrates adaptable exercises that are non-stigmatizing and fit a variety of abilities. Quay said the program has also been shown to help with pandemic stress and loneliness.
Richmond Jewish Day School turned to music as a way to inspire inclusion. According to principal Sabrina Bhojani, the grant provided funding for specially adapted Orff percussion instruments, or xylophones that could be used by students with special needs. “Music education is an integral component of both our B.C. and Hebrew curriculum at RJDS,” Bhojani said. “Weaving music into [the] curriculum is a meaningful way to help our students develop their Jewish identity and better understand their culture.”
Congregation Beth Tikvah used the funding to help develop Kavod. According to Rabbi Susan Tendler, the program aims to ensure that the synagogue’s services and activities are open to everyone, “regardless of personal physical, financial, or accessibility limitations.” Kavod’s development is ongoing.
Congregation Beth Israel received a grant to create new Hebrew school programming. Beth Israel’s director of youth engagement, Rabbi David Bluman, said the funding helped make the Hebrew reading program more inclusive to children with learning challenges. “We always strive to be [as inclusive] as we can,” he said, adding that many of Beth Israel’s youth programs are adaptable to students’ abilities, such as the use of “shadow” companions who function as a “big brother or big sister” for a child during activities and lessons. The shadow program can be used for age levels. “We want our teens to be as independent as possible,” Bluman said.
B’nai mitzvah programs
Both Beth Israel and Temple Sholom tailor their b’nai mitzvah programs to meet the specific abilities of the child. Temple Sholom School’s principal, Jen Jaffe, said about 10% of the student body have varying needs.
“All b’nai mitzvah-aged children are given the opportunity to have a b’nai mitzvah, and the clergy works with each family to make sure expectations and goals are feasible and met. Each child is given the chance to shine regardless of any disabilities,” Jaffe said. The school also trains madrachim, or helper students, to support students with invisible disabilities.
Beth Israel is also known for its inclusive b’nai mitzvah program, which is led by ba’allat tefilla Debby Fenson. She said the program is designed to ensure that a child, irrespective of ability, can participate in the service: “I think that the expectation is that every child should be called up to [the bimah]. It’s not about how well they read the Torah, it’s about welcoming them into the community.”
Fenson said the community has celebrated more than one b’nai mitzvah in which a child’s medical challenges needed to be considered. In one case, the child, who was nonverbal, was aided by his mother in saying the Shema. “There was clear understanding on his part,” Fenson said. “His mother helped him in forming the words and saying along with him. He was welcomed into the community.”
Leadership by inclusion
Respect Ability’s survey of North American and Israeli Jewish communities highlighted two factors that are often important to creating inclusiveness: the top-down commitment to diversity and a leader’s personal experience. All of the above synagogues, schools and community services – as well as others – benefit from clear initiatives that attract families with accessibility needs and see inclusion as an expanding mission. In some cases, they also benefit from leadership that is open about their own health challenges as well.
Beth Israel Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said he is aware that his willingness to talk openly about his own challenges can help create a supportive environment for others. Infeld was born with a congenital heart defect.
“Unfortunately, I have firsthand experience with health issues that I am happy to share with people about, certainly because I want to be transparent about who I am as a human being…. I would hope, had I been born with a whole heart and not a hole in it, that I would still have a whole heart,” he said, noting that when we’re forced to reflect on our own abilities and limitations, it can inspire empathy for others faced with similar challenges.
One area that was not addressed in the survey was accessible housing, which helps expand disability inclusion. Tikva Housing Society’s very first housing project in 2008 contained accessible units. The organization’s third inclusive property, Dogwood Gardens, opens this year in the West End. This will be the subject of a future story in the Jewish Independent.
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Zoom presentations became a regular affair at Beth Israel during the pandemic. Inset: JFS director of programs and community partnerships Cindy McMillan provides an overview of the new Jewish Food Bank. (screenshot from BI & JFS)
As Vancouver-area synagogues cautiously edge their way toward reinstituting in-person religious services, many rabbis are doing a rethink about the impact that the past 17 months of closure has had on their congregations.
Finding a way to maintain a community connection for thousands of Jewish families became an imperative for all of the synagogues early on in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, for many, the answer became cutting-edge technology. But careful brainstorming and halachic deliberations remained at the heart of how each congregation addressed these urgent needs.
“We immediately realized that services per se were not going to work over electronic medium,” Congregation Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt told the Independent.
He said Orthodox rabbis across the world were already discussing halachah (Jewish law) in light of the pandemic when the province of British Columbia announced the shutdown in March of last year. “We realized that we weren’t going to offer any services,” he said. “We can’t have a minyan online.”
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t offer support. Schara Tzedeck’s answer to that need was only one of many innovative approaches that would come up. For example, to help congregants who had lost family members, the Orthodox shul devised a new ritual, as the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (10 men or 10 men and women, depending on the level of orthodoxy, gathered together in one physical location).
“What we did is immediately [start a Zoom] study session in lieu of Kaddish. [The Mourner’s] Kaddish is based on this idea of doing a mitzvah act, which is meritorious for the sake of your loved one, so we substituted the study of Torah for the saying of Kaddish,” he explained.
For many other communities, such as the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, the deliberations over how to apply halachah in unique moments such as these were just as intense. For these instances, said BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, rabbis saw another imperative.
“This is what is called she’at had’chak, or a time of pressure,” Infeld said. “It’s a special time, it’s a unique time, and so we adapted to the time period.”
The concept allows a reliance on less authoritative opinions in urgent situations. So, for example, with respect to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, Infeld said, “We felt that, especially in this time period, people would need that emotional connection, or would need that emotional comfort of saying Mourner’s Kaddish when they were in mourning, and so we have not considered this [internet gathering to be] a minyan, except for Mourner’s Kaddish,” Infeld said. He noted that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which reviews halachic decisions for the Conservative movement, has adopted the same position.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, who leads the Orthodox Sephardi synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash, said that although his congregation would not hold Mourner’s Kaddish online, venues like Zoom played a vital role in allowing the congregation to meet during shivah, the first seven days of mourning. Like a traditional shivah, which takes place in the mourner’s home, often with a small number of visitors, an online shivah gave community members a chance to attend and extend support as well.
“That was actually an especially meaningful [opportunity],” Gabay said. “The mourners, one after another, told me that, first of all, you don’t often get the opportunity to have so many people in the room, all together, listening.”
For members of the Bayit Orthodox congregation in Richmond, an online shivah meant family on the other side of the country could attend as well. “What was most interesting, of course, was the people from all across the world,” remarked Rabbi Levi Varnai. “You can have people who are family, friends, cousins, from many places in the world, potentially.”
Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Sholom also came to value the potential of blending online media with traditional venues. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz said the congregation had been streaming its services and classes as much as a decade before the pandemic arrived. But lifecycle events, he said, demanded a more personal approach, one that would still allow families to actually participate in reading from the Torah scroll, while not violating the restrictions on large public attendance.
“The big change is that we brought Torah to everybody’s home,” he said. Literally. Moskovitz or his associate, Rabbi Carey Brown, would deliver the scroll in a large, specially fitted container, along with a prayer book, instructions and other necessary accoutrements.
“We had a document camera so, when we streamed, you could look down on the Torah as it was being read on screen. Those were very special moments on a front porch when I would deliver Torah, socially distanced with a mask on, early on in the pandemic,” he said. “I had a mask and I had rubber gloves and they had a mask, and you put something down and you walked away. We got a little more comfortable with service transmission later on.”
Switching to online media also has broadened the opportunities for classes and social connections. Infeld said Beth Israel moved quickly to develop a roster of classes as soon as it knew that there would be a shutdown.
“We realized right away that we can’t shut down. We may need to close the physical building, but the congregation isn’t the building. The congregation is the soul [of Beth Israel]. We exist with or without the building,” he said. “And we realized that for us to make it through this time period in a strong way, and to emerge even stronger from it, we would have to increase our programming.”
He said the synagogue’s weekly Zoom and Learn program has been among its most popular, hosting experts from around the world and garnering up to 100 or more viewers each event. The synagogue also hosts a mussar (Jewish ethics) class that is regularly attended. “We never had a daily study session,” Infeld said. “Now we [do].”
For Chabad centres in the Vancouver area, virtual programming has been a cornerstone of success for years and they have expanded their reach, even during the pandemic. “We have had more classes and more lectures than ever before, with greater attendance,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, who runs Chabad Richmond.
Zoom and other online mediums mean that the centres don’t have to fly in presenters if they want to offer an event. Like other synagogues, Chabad Richmond can now connect their audiences directly with experts from anywhere in the world.
“We can’t go back”
All of the synagogues that were contacted for this story acknowledged that online media services had played an important role in keeping their communities connected. And most felt that they will continue to use virtual meeting spaces and online streaming after the pandemic has ended.
“As our biggest barrier to Friday night participation was the fact that many families were trying to also fit in a Shabbat dinner with small children, the convenience of the Friday livestream is worth including in the future,” said Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who runs the North Shore Conservative synagogue Congregation Har El.
“We’re scoping bids to instal a Zoom room in our classroom space so that we can essentially run a blended environment,” Rosenblatt said. “We anticipate, when restrictions are lifted, some people will still want to participate by Zoom and some people will want to be in person.”
However, some congregations remain undecided as to whether Zoom will remain a constant in their services and programming.
Rabbi Susan Tendler said that the virtual meeting place didn’t necessarily mesh with all aspects of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Conservative service, such as its tradition of forming small groups (chavurot) during services. “We are talking about what that will look like in the future,” she said, “yet realize that we must keep this door open.”
So is Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam, which is looking at hybrid services to support those who can’t attend in person. “But these activities will probably not be a major focus for us going forward,” said board member Dov Lank.
For Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation, developing ways to bolster classes, meditation retreats and other programs online was encouraging. Rabbi Hannah Dresner acknowledged that, if there were another shutdown, the congregation would be able to “make use of the many innovations we’ve conceived and lean into our mastery of virtual delivery.”
For a number of congregations, virtual services like Zoom appear to offer an answer to an age-old question: how to build a broader Jewish community in a world that remains uncertain at times and often aloof.
The Bayit’s leader, Rabbi Varnai, suggests it’s a matter of perspective. He said finding that answer starts with understanding what a bayit (home) – in this case, a Jewish house of worship – is meant to be.
The Bayit, he said, is “a place for gathering community members and for coming together. The question, how can we still be there for each other, causes us to realize that we can’t go back to as before.” After all, he said, “community service is about caring for each other.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Plans are for Jewish Family Services to open a food centre in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood this year. (photo from jewishvancouver.com)
The Tu b’Shevat More Than a Bag of Food program – a day of giving, of cooking and of education on food security in the age of COVID-19 – concluded with a panel discussion on the importance of good food, supply chain challenges, and the ensuing impacts and issues facing the Vancouver Jewish community.
The Jan. 28 program was presented by Congregation Beth Israel and Jewish Family Services (JFS), and the discussion event featured Mara Shnay, founding member and chair of the JFS client advisory committee; Cindy McMillan, director of programs and community partnerships with JFS; Dr. Eleanor Boyle, an educator and writer on food and health; Krystine McInnes, chief executive officer of Grown Here Farms, a company that supplies more than 1.5 million families with produce in Western Canada; and Dr. Tammara Soma, assistant professor at the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.
Moderator Bernard Pinsky began by highlighting the connection of the Jewish community and providing food. “Feeding the needy is an act of chesed,” he said.
“For people who are food insecure, it is not about having enough for food,” explained Shnay. “It is about not having enough money for anything – to buy a new pair of shoes, to replace a phone, to go to the dentist or to take one’s kids to the movies, and it is about living in that kind of poverty. In Vancouver, housing security is inextricably linked to food security. The income of many JFS clients is less than their rent,” she emphasized.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the circumstances of many JFS clients, particularly seniors, who are at higher risk of contracting the disease and, therefore, should refrain from using public transport or going to stores. Consequently, shopping has become increasingly expensive for them.
McMillan said the food needs within the Jewish community more than doubled in the past year, with children comprising 20% of those seeking food services. The number of Jewish families and seniors living in poverty has been rising for several years in the Lower Mainland, well before the pandemic started, she added.
To help combat the challenge, JFS will open an as-yet-unnamed food centre in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood in the spring of 2021. “There will be a community kitchen, a place for social gathering, opportunities for general food knowledge, cooking classes, meals and a warehouse with increased storage for dry goods and perishables,” said McMillan.
The centre will also have a market-style food pantry for people to choose their food according to their customs and cultures, and the offerings will extend to outlying communities in the Greater Vancouver area through a pop-up van. The centre’s emphasis will be on supplying healthy food in a dignified manner to those in need, she explained.
Boyle spoke of food security in a wider sense – “We have food security when everyone is confident they can put adequate, healthy food on the table,” she stated.
There are systemic problems in Canada, she pointed out, as the country exports half the food it produces. “Food is treated like any other consumer good, like cars or shoes. It is run largely by private industry and, for business, social good is not a priority, profit is,” Boyle argued.
She advised involving government in the food industry, as is done in other sectors, such as education, transportation and health. More money, she suggested, should go to those who have trouble buying food, perhaps in the form of guaranteed income. The federal government could also pay farmers to grow certain amounts of healthy foods, like lentils, which would be available at below-market rates to everyone. This would in turn enhance food security and health for everyone with no stigma attached to buying this food; rich and poor would be paying the same price at the grocery checkout, said Boyle.
“There needs to be a shift from big agriculture to a more diversified local system,” she continued. “We created these current systems, and they should work for us. Change can happen. We will need to face down climate change and make food systems more sustainable,” she said, urging support for local food that is sustainably produced, as well as for people to waste less food and to eat a more plant-based diet.
McInnes elaborated on Boyle’s points by listing a number of problems in the supply chain, the agriculture and retail sectors, and government policy. “We are in a game in which corporate interests win and farmers lose, and consumers don’t understand that they are playing the card of the unwitting party that made it all happen,” she claimed.
Reeling off some concerning figures, McInnes reported that 85% of the space in grocery stores is controlled by four or five companies, that retail mark-up of local produce is 150% to 200% on average and that 92% of Canadian farmers do not have a succession plan.
Soma, meanwhile, spoke of food as spirituality and food as a right. She questioned, from an ethical perspective, the policies of big agriculture, which, for example, kills male chicks because they cannot produce eggs.
“Food as a right is not a secular concept, it is an act of spiritual justice to promote equity,” said Soma. “Food is a means of building relationships and a means of showing that you care and love someone.”
She added, “Without food security, we will not have peace and we will not have unity. The further the distance between the food and the one who eats it, the more the waste. There is a loss of connection.”
To watch the food security panel discussion or the Hilit Nurick and Rabbi Stephen Berger cooking session that took place earlier on Jan. 28 (and to download their red lentil soup recipe), visit bethisraelvan.ca/event/tubishvat5781.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.